We all have our limits, and being a Christian doesn’t exempt you from that – but I’ve discovered that from time to time, it appears that God will allow us to be stretched a bit more in order to find out what’s really in this very earthen vessel that is known as my body. Walsall was such a hard time for me. Stress seemed to permeate the very walls of the building where I lived and worked. My first year there was dreadful. Within a couple of weeks there, I had lost the respect of my boss by being too soft with some of my decisions. I was trying to be ‘the nice guy’ with the teenagers, in the hope that they would respond positively to what I asked of them. It backfired badly, and they began to run all over me and pull me in all sorts of directions. I allowed one rule to be slightly compromised, and before I knew it, everyone was at it. Rules were being bent and twisted like when people make animals out of balloons.
As a result of this, my boss was quite hard on me to begin with. I partly understood why after she told me a little bit of her story. One evening in Walsall, she was waylaid by a gang of about six youths. She was black, and it was a racially motivated attack, albeit a very cowardly one by six ‘tough’ guys on one woman. Unfortunately for them, they picked on the wrong woman. They also made the mistake of not covering their faces during their onslaught. As they were beating her up, she clocked each one’s face to her memory. She told me that over a period of about six months, she tracked each one of them down, individually, and got them on their own. This time, it was one on one, and she wreaked her revenge on each one and settled her scores with them. There wasn’t a lot of forgiveness on offer; just a dose of some Charles Bronson-like comfort. There was a sensitive and amusing side to my boss, but she was also hard; possibly the hardest woman I’ve ever met. I wasn’t sure that I could ever reach this standard of toughness in my work, or even if I wanted to.
There were many times during that first year when I could quite easily have quit and given up. I was horribly lonely. It took me a while to get to know people in Walsall, and it was difficult for me to keep going day by day in such a tough and demanding job.
However, I rode the early storm and after a year there, I began to have some breakthroughs. I toughened up more. It meant that I had to be firmer and more consistent in my dealings with the teenagers. It also meant being unpopular at times; but I found that if I stood my ground then I would get the results. And I eventually got the respect of my boss back, a few months before she left. There were times when I enjoyed the head-on challenges that such a job offered. But more often than not, it seemed like a relentless procession of one stressful incident after another. A conveyor belt of hassle…
It was frequently very hard for me to get and then to maintain some privacy. My working life used to blend with my free time to a great degree, but not by my choice. If friends came to visit, I would be desperate to go out to the pub or cinema with them, because I knew all too well that it would not be long before someone would knock my door or ring my bell to tell me that so-and-so was causing problems, or that so-and-so had left their stuff in the washing machine, or to ask me for change for the phone, or any variety of petty and occasionally serious needs. My friends, however, considered it to be great amusement, and would love to prolong their visits in order to see what trouble would present itself. I was part of a living soap-opera. On reflection, I was a forerunner for ‘reality TV’.
I was in the habit of visiting my parents, who were still living in Castle Vale, every other weekend, and would stay there just for the break it afforded from the demands and problems with the teenagers. It was an oasis for me and I would milk it to the full, squeezing out the last drops of the weekend. But each time I returned to Walsall, a sense of impending dread would be a fellow passenger for the journey home on the 966 bus. My mind would be full of questions such as “What am I going back to this time?”, “I do hope they haven’t emptied the fire extinguishers again…”, and “I hope that no-one burnt the milk or the chip pan fryer on the cooker again…!” It took me a long time to try to come to terms with this stress, and to be honest, I don’t know if I ever succeeded. It wasn’t easy having charge of a house full of rampant adolescents, let alone two houses. Not easy at all. As a Christian, it was the steepest of learning curves. It was like downhill skiing…but going upwards, sometimes in reverse! At other times it was very much like walking a threadbare tightrope, and I’m quite certain that from time to time I fell off – with a mighty thud. I did learn a lot from it, but mostly about my own failings under pressure. But I also had to learn the hard way how to trust in God, even when I threatened to snap and lose the plot completely.
But everyone has their limit – and one night, I reached mine. It concerned a confrontation that I had with a young Asian lad named Dipak. On the whole, Dipak was quite well meaning and genuinely wanted to get on in life. But he was also fond of being the centre of attention and liked to be the one making everybody laugh. One night, a few of the residents had congregated in the room above my bedroom. It was well past midnight, and I was very tired. There was a midnight curfew for noise and visitors, but I was fairly reasonable about people staying up late, as long as they didn’t bother me or anybody else. But this night, I was awakened from my slumber by a tapping noise. As I came around, I was sure that someone was very deliberately tapping their foot on the floor above me. I waited long enough to be sure that it was deliberate – yes it was, and the volume was even increasing. I went up with the intention of politely asking whoever it was to stop and to be quiet, and to please go to bed if they couldn’t be. I was annoyed and tired, but in control.
I knocked on the door and went in. As soon as I went in, even before I had a chance to speak, Dipak said with what was supposed to be his cheeky smile, “Did I wake you up?” And that was when I lost it… All the mini-tensions of the previous months were all cranked up together in that moment, and the camel’s fragile back finally caved in under this latest straw. Dipak was sitting there with two other residents, both of whom suddenly went quiet, realising that he’d pushed the self-destruct button on this occasion. This was not the time to win friends with cheap laughs at my expense. I had reached my limit, and was wavering beyond it. I walked up to Dipak, put my hand under his chin and grabbed him firmly by the neck. He was quite small in stature, so it was no problem for me, at least, not at that particular moment. I slowly marched him to the window, which was open in the summer night, his feet barely touching the ground. An image of Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Commando’ flashed through my mind (“I let him go…”), and I said something like this…“You probably think you’re very funny, don’t you, Dipak? Am I laughing? You’re probably thinking ‘Clive’s a Christian. He wouldn’t really hurt me.’ Well, Dipak, I’ve got news for you. Even Christians have got their limits, and I’ve just reached mine. At this moment, there’s nothing more I’d like to do than to shove you out of this window, and take my chances with God and the law. Dipak, believe it or not, right now you need more faith in God than I do. You need to believe that God wouldn’t let me do such a thing. That he wouldn’t let anything like this happen to you. Do you have that faith, Dipak? Because right now, I’m not sure that I do.”
I stood holding him by the neck, poised near the open window. When I said it, I don’t doubt that I meant it, but part of me also couldn’t believe that I’d said it. I had reached the edge, and I was dangerously close to going over it. I swear he was going pale. “Yes! I believe, I believe!” he shouted. “Don’t hurt me!” I relaxed and I let him go…onto solid ground, mind you, and not out of the window! I had no more problems that night. Come to think of it, Dipak never did give me any more grief after that. I went back to bed. At first, I felt very ashamed at how badly I’d handled it. I felt very sorry for him…and for myself. I guess I could have handled it more maturely. But then I realised what I’d done – I’d given an honest reaction. It might not have been perfect, but it was real. God is big; he’s also a lot bigger than our mistakes too. I really don’t think it’s possible to live the Christian life without making some mistakes along the way. Becoming a Christian doesn’t suddenly change all our faults. I was, and still am, in the process.
Years later, I moved south to Basingstoke I went for a routine check-up at the doctors, as I was new to the surgery. They were concerned about my high blood pressure, but they put this down to my weight and told me to watch my diet and to come back in three weeks. When I returned, my weight remained the same, but my blood pressure had gone down a lot, and they were puzzled as to why this was. They asked me some questions about my lifestyle and what I’d been doing in Walsall, and so I told them. As soon as I mentioned my job and the word ‘teenagers’, the diagnosis was quickly ascertained: “Ah! Stress…” they responded, and told me the change in my job would do me good. It would be better then any medicine that they could offer me. They were right.